Declaration of Arbroath 700 – The Dunfermline Connection
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700 years ago, what would become an icon of Scottish identity was created. On the 6th of April 1320, the Declaration of Arbroath was signed and sent to Pope John XXII in Avignon France. Lesley Riddoch, columnist and producer of ‘Declaration, the letter of liberty’, says the letter from Scotland to Pope John XXII was “probably the first declaration in medieval Europe to promote the idea that people are above kings, that a nation is its people and that any nation has the right to self-determination”.
After submitting to Edward I in 1302 and returning to “the king’s peace”, Robert inherited his family’s claim to the Scottish throne upon his father’s death. On 10 February 1306 Robert the Bruce participated in the killing of John Comyn, his rival for the crown, before the high altar of the Greyfriars Church in Dumfries. Legend has it that Robert the Bruce called Comyn to a meeting, stabbed him and rushed out to tell Roger de Kirkpatrick. For this he would be ex-communicated from the church by the Pope. Bruce was crowned King of Scots shortly thereafter on 25 March 1306.
Following an initial defeat by the English, Bruce went on to engage in highly successful guerrilla warfare which saw victory at Loudon Hill and ultimately Bannockburn against the then Edward II. Despite this, Edward II refused to renounce his claim to the overlordship of Scotland. And, neither did the Pope recognise Robert the Bruce as king. The Pope sought peace between the two nations for other reasons, desiring their support in the Crusades in the Holy Land. It appeared that the two sides reached an impasse with the impact of the Great Famine and other political influences.
The Declaration was written six years after the Battle of Bannockburn. It is, as described by Lord Charles Bruce, a lineal descendant of King Robert the Bruce, as “also a work of profound scholarship, drawing on a wide sweep of European history to provide an unarguable case for self-determination. Indeed, the senior Scottish clergymen who composed the Declaration were well aware of the most up to date thinking on constitutional theory which emerged from theological scholars teaching at the University of Paris in the 1280s. Foremost of these was John Quidort, a follower of Thomas Aquinas who wrote, that ‘Kingly power is from …the people who give their consent and choice’ “.
Coming from a king famed for his guerrilla tactics, this was a diplomatic initiative of the highest order the contents of which would serve as inspiration for generations to come. It is believed, albeit circumstantially, that the Declaration served as inspiration for the American Declaration of Independence. For Lord Bruce, it is this part of his ancestor as “a statesman of conscience as much as a warrior”, that they continue to promote.
Four years later, the Pope recognised Robert as king and although a peace treaty was secured with England in 1328, King Robert did not live to see the full success of his diplomatic initiative. He died just nine days before the Papacy published an order allowing Scottish monarchs to be anointed at their coronation in 1329.
It is only fitting that Dunfermline, the Ancient Capital of Scotland, recognises and celebrates the anniversary of this significant document, as it is here at Dunfermline Abbey that King Robert the Bruce lies buried.